Robert G. Webster is an Emeritus Professor in the Division of Virology; Department of Infectious Diseases at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Together with Graeme Laver he developed one of the first subunit vaccines for influenza that is still being produced in Australia. The major focus of his research is the importance of influenza viruses in wild aquatic birds as a major reservoir of influenza viruses and their role in the evolution of new pandemic strains for humans and lower animals. He contributed to the establishment of the Center of Excellence for Influenza Research at the University of Hong Kong and to the Center of Excellent for Influenza Research and Surveillance at St Jude Children’s Research Hospital and to our understanding of the continuing evolution and control of novel influenza viruses. His curriculum vita contains over 700 original articles and reviews on influenza viruses with pandemic potential. He has trained many scientists who now contribute to our understanding of the evolution and pathogenesis of influenza and to vaccine and antiviral developments.

Research Interests

As a virologist, I have studied the mechanisms of evolution of influenza viruses including genetic drift and shift and the emergence of pandemic influenza viruses. In collaboration with the World Health Organization, my laboratory established that the wild aquatic birds of the world, including wild ducks and shorebirds, are the natural reservoirs of influenza viruses. Our studies have revealed geographically separable lineages of influenza viruses, including those in Eurasia and the Americas, and evolutionary statis in their reservoir species. Emergence of the Asian-57 and Hong Kong-68 human pandemics involved reassortment between influenza viruses from the Eurasian avian lineage and influenza viruses circulating in humans. After interspecies transfer, the influenza virus genes evolve rapidly. The molecular events involved in the emergence of highly pathogenic avian H5 influenza viruses are associated with the hemagglutinin cleavage site and can be influenced by the presence of carbohydrate residues. More recently, I have been involved in elucidating the origin of the avian H5N1 influenza viruses that transmitted directly to humans in Hong Kong and killed six of eighteen humans infected. Live poultry markets in Hong Kong were the source of these viruses, and the molecular changes that permitted interspecies transmission are now being resolved.

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Section 44: Microbial Biology